Karelian rätsinä shirt.
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Making an early 19th-century Karelian dress, part 1: Shirt “rätsinä”

I love to make historical garments but I am very aware that my Finnish ancestors that were mostly farmers in the countryside, didn’t wear those fashionable regency gowns or stays. European fashions had their followers in bigger cities and towns but most of the folk stuck to their traditional clothes. In this series, I am delving into the dress that my Karelian ancestors would have worn at the turn of the 19th century. The first layer of the costume is the long shirt called “rätsinä”.

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Finland has always been at the border of east and west. For hundreds of years most of the area known as Finland was part of Sweden. It’s no wonder then that many Finnish folk costumes share similarities with Swedish folk costumes. My family, however, is from North Karelia. This part of Finland mostly belonged to Russia. While in the west the people were of Lutheran faith, in the east the religion was Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Just it happens that my family is split between these two traditions. While I don’t subscribe to any religion, my mother’s ancestors were Orthodox while my father’s were Lutheran. Besides the faith, the traditional costumes are different between these two populations. I happen to own a Western-style Munsala costume already, so I decided that I wanted to delve into the Karelian folk dress.

Karelian woman’s folk costume is similar to Russian folk costumes in the Western parts of Russia. The first layer is a shirt called “rätsinä” that is more like an underdress as it reaches below the knee. The shirt is made out of linen or cotton and often the visible parts were made out of finer quality fabric. The neckline is gathered and has a slit that closes with a button. The neckband is often decorated with embroidery. The sleeves are straight or leg-o-mutton shaped and the hem is often decorated with redwork embroidery.

The pattern for the rätsinä

Soja Murto is an expert on Finnish folk costumes. She weaves, embroiders and makes patterns for traditional Karelian and Finnish folk dresses based on historical garments. Following her recommendation, I chose the “Vuorelma” style rätsinä that suits with several different styles of sarafan dresses. This pattern (designed by Vuorelma, another Finnish company) has five pieces: a front and a back, leg-o-mutton sleeves, triangular sleeve gussets and a neckband.

Linen fabric with flat felled seams.
Fabric detail with flat felled seams.

I found this fine linen fabric at a remnant bin. I was lucky since I spotted the same fabric on a bolt and it cost over twice as much as the end-of-bolt! To prevent it from shrinking, I made sure to wash the fabric before cutting it. For the sewing, I used sturdy linen thread that I waxed with beeswax.

Karelian redwork embroidery

I found the embroidery pattern for the neckline from this book from the 1950s:

Book "Karjalan kirjonta" by Stenij-Ollila.

This kind of redwork embroidery was very popular throughout Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be done so that both sides of the embroidery were identical. For the neckline, however, the wrong side didn’t show. I used DMC Special embroidery thread that can last wash at 95 degrees Celsius without the colour running.

Making Karelian redwork embroidery.

Here is my YouTube video of the whole sewing process:

The finished rätsinä shirt

I’m really happy with how this turned out. The whole shirt was surprisingly quick to sew, even by hand. However, the neckline embroidery took almost a day, so had I embroidered the hem, as I intended at first, it would have taken weeks! However, I can now wear this under my sarafan and if I so desire, embroider a separate hem piece later and then sew it to this shirt.

Here are some pictures of the finished rätsinä shirt:

The rätsinä shirt from the front.

The sleeves are supposed to be slightly too long for today’s standard. Usually they were pushed up to the elbow.

With a belt below. (The rätsinä was sometimes belted even under the dress. I think that a belt was probably worn also, when these shirts were worn alone, at home.)

A front view with a belt.

Side view:

Rätsinä shirt from the side view.

And the back:

And the back view.

Note my cool Finnish folk shoes! I bought them second hand and the leather laces were so worn that they immediately broke in my hands. For now, I have substituted the laces with some black and white ribbon but I intend to find proper laces at some pint.

In the next part of this series you will hear about how I taught myself to weave with a backstrap rigid heddle to make traditional belts!

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog and my YouTube channel! See you soon and happy sewing!


I am a mother of two. I sew, knit and create and blog about it.


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